By Victoria De Maio
Take a small group to Italy; immerse them in amazing food, wine and olive oil; show them picturesque and historic cities and sites; season with warm, wonderful locals… and what do you get? An authentic once-in-a-lifetime experience in the enchanting south of Italy, Puglia’s seductive Salento!
Being Italian, everyone assumes that: (1) I learned to cook family recipes in the kitchen with my Italian mother, aunts, and grandmothers, and; (2) I’m a great cook.
Well, both assumptions are wrong! I won’t digress into the details of why but rest assured neither are the case. Nor would I call myself a “foodie” or connoisseur. Given all that, I absolutely love to enjoy local cuisine and specialities whenever and wherever I travel. I love to watch cooking shows (and Anthony Bourdain, of course!), take cooking classes and, of course, I LOVE to eat (very Italian!).
So, last spring when I was chatting with a guest who was joining my group tour to Puglia, she confessed that she and her husband were excited about everything on our itinerary but she was concerned that it would be a problem in the cooking classes if she didn’t really know how to cook. (Her husband did all the cooking — lucky gal!). It was easy to reassure her that I was no cook either and that’s why we would enjoy taking the classes — to learn, to get hands-on, and to enjoy together… Italian style! (And we did!)
A perfect shared experience: Cooking class in Puglia
Our small group of 12 boomers was a mix of singles and couples. What’s great about small groups is that, the first glass of wine makes instant friends of everyone and our 10 days together is always a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime shared experience. We’re all here to immerse in Puglia’s lifestyle (and, of course, that includes local food).
Regional cuisine is such an integral part of a place. It’s defined and influenced by its geography, history, and traditions. And there’s a wonderful connectedness and continuity when recipes and customs are shared and passed from generation to generation. There’s no doubt that many of our fondest memories are directly linked to remembering meals with family or friends during holidays or special occasions and, of course, during our travels.
So before planning a group trip to Puglia, I did a lot of research and communicating with my local Puglia expert and partner, Ylenia Sambati. One aspect that had a huge appeal to me with the opportunity to “cook with local Mammas”. It just doesn’t get more authentic than that! No Cordon Bleu or fancy recipes and techniques – just in the kitchen cooking with Mamma— and in this case, Yle’s Mamma Anna and Mamma Giulia who reigns over the cucina of our masseria accommodation.
Ylenia learned her skills by her Mamma’s side and along with Mamma Giulia, they cook together and enthusiastically share the local Pugliese Salento style cuisine, often referred to as cucina povera, with guests. I couldn’t wait to cook with them and to share that experience with my group. (And it was pretty amazing for all of us!)
The local culinary tradition of cucina povera (literally poor kitchen), is hardly poor! The name is derived from times, particularly during wartime, when availability of food was limited if not downright scarce. As was and still is the case in many cultures, what was served at the kitchen table was a result of what was available from the land or at the local market that day. It’s a cuisine rooted firmly in availability plus, lacking any means to preserve or refrigerate food necessitated daily shopping and preparation. Simple ingredients were utilized and creatively made into simple, nutritious fare which had to be hardy enough to fortify a hardworking family.
So, what will be on the menu today? Whatever is in season and at the market today! Always fresh and local, and always prepared with heart and love! Thus evolved the local culinary traditions and the scrumptious, authentic cuisine we enjoyed during our visit here.
So we put on our aprons, filled our glasses with divine local vino and the fun began! Rinsing, chopping, rolling, mashing, kneading, pouring, dicing, stirring, mixing, assembling; it’s a perfect blend of hands-on learning and a good time. No fancy utensils, no complicated recipes, no exotic ingredients. The ingredients that only you can bring are heart and enthusiasm. And the results? Downright delizioso!
I would love for you to join me in Puglia in spring or fall, not just for extraordinary cuisine and world renowned wine and olive oil; not just for cooking classes or local artisan visits; not just to take guided walks through spectacular medieval towns… but to meet the warm and wonderfully hospitable people of this region of Italy.
About the author:
“La dolce vita for me” sums up Victoria’s passion and love for all things Italian. An American (with deep Italian roots) living in California, her heart is always in Italy. Her book “Victoria’s Travel TipZ Italian Style” is a result of her love for Italy, all things Italian, and sincere desire to help others have a truly fabulous trip to Italy. As a travel consultant, writer, and blogger, Victoria loves sharing practical no-nonsense travel tips and insights as well as her own experiences from a personal and light-hearted point-of-view on her travel blog, PostcardZ from Victoria. Needless to say, her favorite subject is Italy! When she isn’t planning her next trip (or yours!), she loves being a regular contributing writer for Italian Notebook, Italian Talks, and L’Italo-Americano. She loves doing book signings and presentations and can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram as well as on blog radio, and doing guest posts and interviews.